Harvey Nash focus on ethnic minority 'glass ceiling' at 2016 Party Conferences

12th October 2016 -- Representatives from Harvey Nash participated in this year's political party conferences to further the workplace diversity debate to include individuals from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

At this year's Labour and Conservative conferences, Harvey Nash was invited by the think tank the Policy Exchange to be part of their the fringe event, Glass Ceilings: Is the ethnic minority glass ceiling in business and the professions cracking. It may seem hard to believe that there were any themes this year other than Brexit, but given Theresa May's statements about shaking up corporate boardrooms and the two reports expected from Sir John Parker and Ruby McGregor-Smith on corporate ethnic diversity in November, this was apt timing to raise the volume on this issue.

On the panel from Harvey Nash at the Labour conference was Peter Reichwald, Director of the Harvey Nash Board Practice and founder of the minority ethnic Board network Engage and joining at the Conservatives was Amanda Ciske, Head of Communications for Harvey Nash Inclusion. Sharing the platform were Professor Shamit Saggar, Essex University, Kulveer Ranger, Vice president Public Affairs and Strategic Communications at Atos and David Goodhart, Head of the Demography, Immigration, and Integration Unit at Policy Exchange acting as chair.

The discussion opened with Shamit calling for a 'Life Chances' agenda meaning, everyone no matter of their background should feel they have an equal opportunity to achieve success. He discussed his forthcoming research with the Policy Exchange focusing on ethnic diversity at the peeks of organisations, which he described as 'the bulge below the top." In it he will seek to understand the underlying issues resulting in the 'glass ceiling' for the top two per cent where the process remains elusive and crude discrimination difficult to define. He said the report would not just look at ethnicity as a factor, but also whether an individual's background influences whether they are successful or not.

Whilst there has been much focus on the barriers faced by women as they progress to board level, very little research to date has scrutinised the experience of ethnic minority leaders. Peter shared insights from the recent Ethnicity Gap report from Engage, which captures the views of ethnic minority executives through a survey and interviews. The results found that eight out of ten ethnic minority leaders felt that factors other than merit had hindered their career progression with seven out of ten pointing to their ethnicity specifically.

Exploring behind these responses through qualitative interviews it was found that most of the examples of blatant discrimination were from early career experiences, whereas the instances at senior level were more subtle or subconscious. Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of respondents felt that this unconscious bias amongst CEOs and senior management is the leading reason behind the lack of diversity at senior level and why boards continue to recruit in their own mould. Peter shared one Non-Executive's example of her board's appointment of the Vice Chair where she had not been considered and, when she challenged the Chair on his decision his response was, 'Oh I did not think of you.' Peter said that boards to recognise their own biases and how these might be limiting their ability to broaden the diversity of thought in the boardroom.

One of the questions from the audience at both conferences was whether the panel thought the UK should implement positive discrimination to address the under-representation of ethnic minorities at board level. Peter explained that the underlying issues were complex and quotas would not necessarily achieve the desired results. He suggested that the door needs to be opened both ways, "Aspiring individuals need to push up by realising the value of networking and making themselves and their aspirations known. Equally, those at the top need to open the door and help people progress and feel comfortable in moving up." Shamit agreed that one of the leading reasons why this would not work is that no one wants to feel that they are a token appointment. Amanda added that positive discrimination based solely on race would not necessarily improve areas such as social mobility for example. She referenced the Financial Times' finding that despite the rise in the number of female non-executives in the FTSE 100, boards continued to appoint directors with more or less the same background to that of men.

The gender campaign led by the Lord Davies Committee was referenced as a successful example and demonstration of the important role the government plays in influencing the business community and wider society. There was general agreement that if the UK is to see similar progress for ethnic diversity, the government needs to make this a priority and equally raise the level of attention to these issues. The forthcoming November reports will be telling of how far the government is willing to extend its commitments and whether they will have a real impact to corporate diversity.

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